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"Hey, Hayden!" Kenji Shibuyama said, his mobile phone to his ear. "Aren't you supposed to be in bed resting?"
"I guess so," Hayden said, blowing his nose. "But it's too light."
Hayden was one of those kids who was always active. "It's okay, I get it," Ken said. "Can I talk to your mom?" Ken took a sip of coffee and set his mug back down on the desk.
"She's still into the game."
"I see, that game theory mathematics paper is intense, huh?"
"I know you're bored." Ken laid his phone on the desk and pressed his thumb on the screen to turn on the speaker. He winced when a hairline crack along the side of his thumbnail ruptured and bled. He massaged lotion into his hands. The A/C dried out his skin. "I'll be home lickety-split and we'll play—if you haven't conked out by then."
"But Dad! I'm not tired, and Mom's in the Three Kingdoms, not her math paper."
Ken jumped up, knocked his mug onto the carpet, and coffee spilled out. "What's she doing in there?" he asked.
"Looking for the challenger."
Dammit, I shouldn't have told her. "Is she okay? How long has she been in?"
"It was scary, the kappa—" Hayden coughed.
Hayden went in too. An under-thirteen environment with its anime-style, bumbling kappa clowns can't be that bad. "Scary?"
"And a tsuchigumo exploded and guts flew all around."
Ken laughed a little.
"It was gross." Hayden whimpered.
"Sorry, Hayden. So tell me, what happened, next?"
"And then the kappa tried to grab my shirikodama," Hayden said and sniffled.
That's not right. "That's a serious bug. I'm going to report it. There's no place in the children's environment for that kind of aggressive behavior."
"It's not a bug. Me and Mom, we were... you know, it was the same one you and me accidentally got into last week."
"The eighteen-plus!" That's so irresponsible! But wait, I'm sure she had a good reason. Besides, she'd never let Hayden get hurt.
Hayden sniffled again.
"Hayden," Ken said. "Your mom stopped the kappa, right?
"Remember that. Neither me nor your mother would ever let you get hurt—even in-game."
After reassuring Hayden, Ken told him to have his mother call him right after she got out, and then hung up.
Pushing gray-streaked hair out of his eyes, he glanced at his work email. His eyes popped open. An email from Websuit International was at the top. He forwarded it to his personal email. For months, the other players on the Three Kingdoms forums had been gushing about the invitation-only alpha testing for a new game, Quantum Katana Online. Full immersion and AI so powerful the NPCs could pass the Turing test.
He quit the spreadsheet Mas had sent him, opened his personal email on his home virtual machine image, and then clicked the Youtube video in the Websuit International email. He inched closer to the screen until he was sitting on the edge of his chair.
The video trailer started. While the screen lightened from midnight black to dawn, nohkan flutes lilted and screamed like ghosts. A gnarled foot stomped down onto a tree root and then stepped behind another one; its heel and toes stuck out on either side of an oak's huge trunk. The crisp crunch of leaves echoed in his office's surround-sound speakers. He pumped up the volume. The Pop! Pop, pop, pop! of coordinated tanegashima musket fire raked the room from one end to the other.
Mas walked in and slapped his hands over his ears. "Jesus, you're going to blow the windows out."
Ken leaned forward and stared into the screen.
The smoke from the gunfire cleared. Silence. In ordered rows, a squad of soldiers stood on one side of the provincial road. The screen zoomed in on a sergeant's face, smudged with dirt and sweat under the black-lacqured iron rim of his jingasa helmet. His eyes scanned the tree line on the other side of the muddy road.
"Yoshi!" he yelled in Japanese, "Souten!"
Ken glanced down at the subtitles. Good! Reload!
Mas sat down in a leather chair in front of Ken's desk and started shaking his leg. "Did you look at the spreadsheet—"
Ken held up one hand. With the other, he hit F5 and the ninety-inch flat-panel on the wall lit up.
An inhuman roar rumbled from the sub-woofer under the desk. On the screen, two gargantuan hairy feet launched themselves out of the trees and pounded across the road in three easy strides. A volley of gunfire pierced the air and echoed around the room. A wooden club the size of a man's torso plowed through the ranks of soldiers. Men screamed. The rest ran.
The scene zoomed out. Men lay on the ground and moaned. Two shadows. One blocked the rising sun; the other, outlined by the gray sky.
Cut to the sergeant's face. Blood streamed down his cheek and onto his neck from a raw piece of meat that used to be his eye socket. His good eye stared at his opponent. He fixed a bayonet under the muzzle of his tanegashima.
"Oni! Kakugo shiro!" he screamed and shook his bayonet high in the sky. Sleet splattered his face.
Ken and Mas read the subtitles. Oni! Prepare to die!
As the sergeant rushed the oni, the squelch of his steps in the mud bounced from one side of the room to the other.
The oni roared and swung his club, but at the last second in a burst of speed the sergeant lunged forward. The bayonet stabbed the oni in the abdomen just as the club smashed into the sergeant's side. The sergeant groaned as his feet rose up off the ground. In slow motion, he flew twenty feet through the air and slammed into an oak.
The credits started to roll and Ken paused it.
Mas turned away from the screen to look at Ken. "You know," Mas said, "the number of attempted intrusions has risen dramatically and a surprising number of employees's phones are getting hacked, not to mention the unprecedented spike in spear phishing attacks in just the last week and—"
"Yeah, yeah, I saw the numbers." Ken nodded and then, grinning from ear to ear, said, "What did you think of the trailer? And guess what the big feature is?"
"You can barely hold it in, tell me already." Mas frowned and crossed his arms.
Ken jabbed his finger at the screen. "Total sensory immersion!"
In that instant, Ken restarted the trailer and the game's title started to appear, each character displayed in sequence, pounding across the registration page like Yeti footprints stamped into the side of a glacier. The windows shook from the subwoofer blasts.
Quantum Katana Online
❅ The White Imperium ❅
For a limited time only, bonus stat points and free websuit shipping and handling. For early bird registration, click here.
Mas glared at Ken. "You didn't click the link, did you?"
"Don't get your panties all in a bunch. I just got the trailer a few minutes ago and it's on my home VM."
"C'mon, man, is it too much to ask for the head of information security to set a good example?"
"Nothing happened that time," Ken said.
"Yeah, that time, and it was because I was the one who remediated that trojan horse before it opened a backdoor."
"Well, I was the one who alerted you to a potential intruder."
"God, man, you have some nerve! You let it in in the first place. Sometimes I wonder if you're lacking in the brains department," Mas said, tapping his temple. "How did Hayden end up plugging in the USB stick from your gaming rig into your work laptop?" He held up his hand. "Don't tell me. Regardless, you need to be a responsible parent. Don't let your kid play with your adult toys, okay?"
Ken stood up and bowed. "By your command, Masaru Hashimoto, Oh Most Esteemed Daimyo of Network Security," Ken said and slunk behind his two twenty-four-inch monitors.
Mas snorted a laugh. "About the numbers. They've quadrupled within the past month."
Ken grunted in affirmation, sliding the pointer towards the link, Click here.
"Don't," Mas said.
"Shit." Ken disconnected the TV from his computer. "Hey, it's on my home VM."
"Geez, I know already, but we're at work," Mas said to the back of the monitors. "Grow up."
Ken closed the registration page and peeked out from behind the monitors. "Don't you remember?"
"I told you last week and my answer hasn't changed."
"It'll be like the good old days, instead of this stuffed shirt job." Ken flipped his silk tie.
"You're seriously going to throw it all away? The rest of your options?"
"It'll be a stealth startup—just like we wanted—and those guys are already doing it." Ken pointed at the blank TV. "Total immersion."
"That? Impressive visuals, but still no different than any other MMORPG on the market. What's its market differentiator?" Mas held up a hand. "Don't tell me. A pod. Whoever thought up that trope didn't know a damn thing about psychology. I mean for Chrissakes, it's like climbing into your own coffin."
"It's the websuit."
"Wetsuit?" Mas squinted. "Surfing?"
"Here." Ken looked over at his monitor. The registration page was still displayed. He would've sworn he'd closed it. His pointer was still hovering over Click here as though imploring him. He hit F5 and the TV switched back on. "'Free websuit shipping and handling.' They were talking about it on the forums. It's a wetsuit embedded with nano-sized electrodes. They can--"
"Shock you," Mas said.
"Kind of. They stimulate different sensory nerves, pressure, pain, heat, you know, nociceptors—"
Mas jumped up and flung his arms up in the air. "Pain? You want to feel pain in a goddamn game? Are you out of your fucking mind?"
"I'm not talking about dropping a hammer on your big toe. Just a few pinpricks, it'll be totally immersive."
"Immersive?" Mas waved his arms in the air. "I'll tell you what's immersive: Life, IRL. Remember the two-week vacation on the hot sands of Maui in December that we all took together last year. And the year before that, first class on Japan Air. All the booze you can guzzle on an eight-hour flight, non-stop, San Francisco to Tokyo. And then in a few months, a full-week stay at a ryokan with a fancy onsen. That's the kind of immersion your options can buy."
Ken bobbed his arms up and down at Mas. "Calm down, everything'll be fine. You'll take over as VP and then after I get things established, you'll come over. You should've been VP from the beginning, anyways."
Mas dropped back down into his chair. "You know I'm not a people person like you."
"You'll get the options," Ken said. "Then we can buy that condo on Maui. All of us, me and Chie, you and Audrey and the kids. We can all go there any time we want."
Mas started to push up out of his chair. "Don't be so irresponsible."
"Is this really what you want?" Ken swept his arm around the office. "Remember? We wanted to make a difference."
"We missed it, man, the Internet boom is over."
"VR, AR, total immersion. Chie's mobotacts," Ken said.
"Impractical," Mas said. "Never could solve the power consumption issue. The big guys are way ahead of us with the AR/VR glasses and headsets now."
"Chips are way down in their power needs since twenty years ago. Pair up VR gear with the websuit. There are so many apps. It's an entire ecosystem."
"At our age, aren't you satisfied?" Mas snatched up Ken's nameplate and shoved it in Ken's face. "Look!"
Vice-President of Information Security
California Silicon Investment Corporation
"We're on the fortieth floor of the Transamerica. We're set for life," Mas said.
"Mobotacts plus websuit. They're a game changer."
"You're a dreamer." Mas jerked himself out of his chair and stomped towards the door.
Ken ran around the desk, grabbed Mas's arm, and said, "Mas, remember when we were kids—"
Mas's phone alarm went off.
"Dammit, I forgot about the meeting with the pentesting contractors. They're gouging us." He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples with his fingers. "Can't you talk to Mabel and get a budget for employee security training? The people are always the weakest link, you know."
Ken nodded and sat back down behind his twin monitors.
Mas grabbed the doorknob and then turned his head around. "Also, do me a favor and do a quick read of the spreadsheet and my report. Especially check out the profile we compiled on one interesting visitor. Goes by the handle, Aika_Gordian. A gamer. Maybe you could ask around—"
"Why don't you?" Ken chuckled. "She sounds like your type—dominant, muscular."
Mas gave Ken a blank stare.
"Gordian? Get it?" Ken held his hands out, palms up.
Mas grimaced. "What the fuck are you talking about?"
Ken sighed. "You're always bugging me to go to the women's MMA whenever a bout comes to San Franciso."
"I only asked you twice," Mas said. "Okay, maybe three times. At least, they don't fake it like the men's. The men's MMA has practically turned into the WWW."
"Sure, whatever you say, Mas."
"Shut up, man," Mas said. "Like I was saying, find out about this hacker in the forums."
Ken frowned. "You need to get out more. A gamer does not a hacker make."
"But a hacker makes a deadly gamer. You know, if I had one one-hundrenth of a bitcoin for every hacker in the Three Kingdoms, I'd have a yacht the size of a cruise ship parked in a slip in Honolulu."
The door slid shut.
"Asshole." Ken laughed and rolled his eyes.
He heard two shutter clicks and whipped his head around to stare at his phone in its cradle.
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Quantum Katana
Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night
Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.
Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)